How the Recent SEVIS Exemptions Harm Students, Businesses, and the Nation09 Jul 2020
On July 6, 2020, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which oversees the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), released new guidelines preventing F-1 students from remaining in the United States while taking a full online course load. Though the guidelines have the greatest impact on international students and their families, U.S. universities and businesses are also suffering the side effects.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many states have made genuine efforts to reduce rates of transmission and hospitalization by enforcing lockdowns, mandating masks, and restricting business operations. Though some have resisted these policies, a social society has, more or less, adopted social distancing. With social distancing came remote work and the widespread use of video conferencing platforms, which offer employees and students a safe alternative to meeting and learning in person.
ICE has placed universities in an impossible position. These schools are being forced to choose between having students meet in person, which presents a serious health risk, or else get rid of nearly all international students, which could be financially crippling to many universities. In a lawsuit filed by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to try to block this rule, the schools aptly described this move by ICE. “The effect – and perhaps even the goal – is to create as much chaos for universities and international students as possible.”
Of course, the availability of online courses does not imply that most students prefer online learning. An internet full of distractions is not a perfect substitute for a focused classroom. Likewise, all technology is vulnerable to maintenance and downtime that the real world is not. These exemptions suggest online learning is some sort of “easy way out” for international students, when many of these students would prefer an education that is primarily in person.
The guidelines also disregard the fact that many international students come from countries where participation in online courses may be difficult, if not impossible. The most obvious barrier to an online education is reliable internet access. Students at U.S. universities are accustomed to on-campus Wi-Fi – a luxury to which students abroad are less likely to be privileged. Moreover, Wi-Fi equipped for simple searches may not be sufficient to run video conferencing platforms.
Even international students with reliable internet access may be thwarted from taking online courses from their home countries by a different issue: time zones. An international student living in Chennai, India, who is enrolled in a course scheduled for 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time (U.S.) would have to be awake enough to concentrate at 1:30 a.m. Indian Standard Time. A 10:00 a.m. course in California would start at 3:00 a.m. for a student in Melbourne, Australia. It would be untenable to expect students in drastically different time zones to have the same focus or opportunity to perform as well as as they could by residing in the United States.
There are also indisputable benefits to studying in the United States while attending university here. Students residing in the country can immerse themselves in the nation’s culture: its language, its people, and even its holidays, while sharing their culture and traditions with fellow students. They will return to their home countries with a realistic perspective on our nation and her citizens, to share with friends and colleagues. Embracing international students improves the likelihood that some will seek long-term employment and permanent residency in this country, contributing their unique perspectives to U.S. businesses, research, medicine, technology, and so many vital fields. ICE’s exemptions have the opposite effect, as they force international students to choose between an education in the United States and their own health.
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